TV Reviews

Dear Game of Thrones: Thank You For Giving Us That Amazing Battle with the White Walkers in “Hardhome”

We are trained as viewers to know when certain things are supposed to happen in film and TV shows. Main characters aren’t supposed to die in the middle of the film. Sitcoms aren’t supposed to wrap everything up until the very end of the episode. Season-long big bads aren’t supposed to be defeated until the season finale. And Game of Thrones isn’t supposed to uncork its showcase, big budget moment of the season until the penultimate episode where they make a mini-movie and then use the season finale to reflect on everything and set up the next season. When the formula is not adhered to you can feel invigorated, silently screaming to yourself “This isn’t supposed to be happening yet!”, giving way to the realization that you now have no idea what’s going to happen next.

[Spoiler Alert for Game of Thrones’ Season 5 Episode “Hardhome” & The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings]

That’s how I felt watching the final 20+ minutes of Game of Thrones last night. In the episode, Cersei continued to defiantly suffer in prison, Tyron talked his way into becoming Daenyrs’ advisor, Arya inched closer to becoming an assassin, and Theon accidentally let Sansa know that her two brothers are alive. That’s all fine and good, a perfectly solid set of stories, particularly the new power duo of Daenyrs and Tyrion. However, in the final third of the episode Jon Snow, Tormund Giantsbane, and Dolorous Edd attempted to convince wildlings at Hardhome to return to Castle Black where they would be allowed passage through the Wall and given land to farm in exchange for their promise to take up arms and come to their aid whenever the White Walkers attack. Some of the wildlings were convinced that this was their best option, some weren’t. In general, the wildilings hate the Night’s Watch, the Night’s Watch hate the wildlings, yada, yada, yada.

While all of this is a testament to Jon’s growing leadership and a crucial next step beyond the war fought against the wildlings last season, it’s also very familiar. Beyond its opening scene, this show has mostly only ever told us how scared we should be of the White Walkers without showing us. It’s been almost three full seasons since we saw an army of White Walkers descending upon the Wall.  When do we get to see more of that?

And then as the wildlings boarded ships to Castle Black in “Hardhome” a series of avalanches hit the nearby snow-packed mountains, heralding the imminent arrival of White Walkers, who bring extreme cold wherever they go.  All of the characters stopped to look up, squinting while attempting to make anything out from the haze of snow and wind cascading down the mountains and toward the village.  The wildlings on the other side of Hardhome’s gate are the first to actually see the threat, rushing back to the gate which is quickly closed, leaving them to be slaughtered:

Game-of-Thrones-S5E8-The-Gates-at-HardhomeThus began a full-on attack by the White Walkers and their army.  In a word, it was awesome, from Army of Darkness-style fights against skeletal monsters attempting to scale a wall to a giant using a lit tree and swinging it like a bat to take out rows of bad guys to Jon taking on a White Walker and discovering that his Valyrian steel blade can kill them. I kept waiting for it to end, for there to be some kind of cliffhanger. Surely, Game of Thrones didn’t just sneak a Helm’s Deep battle into the end of its 7th episode, exactly when no one would expect it. Instead, it kept going, ending with the chilling sight of the White Walker’s King staring down Jon Snow from the shore, raising his arms in the air and causing all of the people his army had just killed rise as the new recruits.  It left me more enthused about Game of Thrones than I have been since the end of last season.

game-of-thrones-bonedI now feel like thanking Game of Thrones for this scene which has been nearly 5 full seasons in the making. In fact, my GOT fandom is tied to the White Walkers. The White Walker scene which kicks off the pilot is what hooked me on Game of Thrones.  An Entertainment Weekly story prior to the launch of the show had been my “in” to the GoT universe, leaving me with the rough impression that it was a grittier version of Lord of the Rings and HBO had sunk an unseemly amount of money into it. At that point, I’d heard the “It’s the next Lord of the Rings” marketing slogan so many times it had completely lost any sway. So, I sat out the entire first season, only taking notice when the internet collectively shit its pants after the ostensible lead character died in the penultimate episode. By the time I finally watched the pilot via Blu-Ray I still had little idea what the show was actually about other than a vague notion of it being like medieval England with occasional hints of actual magic.  I was still extremely skeptical of the whole thing.

The First Time We Saw the White Walkers

The opening scene of the pilot didn’t immediately grab me.  It follows three black-cad riders exiting some kind of gate and heading out into snow-packed woods, the scout of the group quickly venturing ahead and coming across mutilated corpses which have been laid on the ground in some kind of pattern. Horrified, the scout returns to the group, and a slasher movie breaks out. The scout is the scared one, another member of his party is the brave but rationale one who reasons they should head back, and the leader is a grade-A asshole who idiotically ignores any warnings, belittles the others for being scared and forces them to head directly into danger. So, of course, the asshole dies first, stricken down by the blade of this slasher scenario’s killer, which looks kind of like a human-sized Frost Giant from Thor. This villain is supernaturally strong, inexpeciablly fast even though we never actually see it running, never speaks a word and is mostly glimpsed in shadow. Its most defining characteristic is the way its blue eyes appear to glow, and, in a delightfully unsettling twist, it can re-animate the dead, turning what was once an adorable little girl into a blue-eyed zombie. The sequence ends with the brave man being decapitated and his head tossed at the feet of the scared guy, who looks up, frozen in fear.

white-walkerCut to opening credits.

What the heck just happened?  This was not the show I was expecting.  I now know that the victims were members of the Nights Watch, and the mutilated corpses belonged to Westeros’ few free folk who live beyond a gigantic ice wall and face extreme hardships as a preferable alternate to living under the rule of the Iron Throne. The slasher killer was something called a White Walker, supernatural, practically unkillable set of ancient beings who present a larger threat to Westeros than any kind of comparably silly tussle over who gets to sit on the throne. The early tagline for the show was “Winter is Coming,” and I immediately understood what that meant – Eventually, the White Walker’s will attack, and when that happens Westeros is so thoroughly screwed.

What We’ve Seen of the White Walkers Since Then

I was hooked, and then an odd thing happened – the White Walkers mostly stayed away from that point forward. It was important that we saw one of them in action to understand how much they should be feared because we would soon learn that almost everyone doubted their existence entirely.  Ever since then, we’ve been slowly drip-fed more information about them. In season 2, we learned that one particularly foul leader of the free folk maintained a truce with the Walkers by routinely offering them baby boys as sacrifices. By the end of season 2, we saw a thoroughly cool shot of White Walkers leading an army of the undead in a march against the Wall, but next to nothing followed that other than Sam killing a lone Whiter Walker in season 3 using something called dragonglass.

game-of-thrones-finale-white-walkers-armygot10In season 4, we discovered what the White Walkers do with the babies they take – they turn them into new White Walkers.


The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings Comparison

The White Walkers are essentially the Sauron of this story minus any ties to a power ring. They are an ancient force which once dominated the land until an improbable coalition emerged victorious.  Unlike the Lord of the Rings movies, this information about the White Walkers is not shown to us via any kind of prologue.  Instead, it’s communicated in fireside chats at the Wall in the early episodes of the show.  You might have missed all of that, though.  So, as detailed over at the GoT wiki:

Eight thousand years before Robert’s Rebellion, a winter known as the Long Night lasted a generation. In the darkness and cold of the Long Night, the White Walkers descended upon Westeros from the farthest north, the polar regions of the Lands of Always Winter. None knew why they came, but they killed all in their path, reanimating the dead as wights to kill the living at their command. Eventually the peoples of Westeros rallied and in a conflict known as the War for the Dawn, they managed to defeat the White Walkers and drive them back into the uttermost north, with the Wall raised to bar their return.

Just like Sauron, everyone believed the villain had been vanquished when in reality it simply lay in wait for centuries and built up its power before launching a second offensive which can again only be defeated if the people of the world can stop with their petty civil wars and unite. It took the Fellowship to defeat Sauron, and in GoT they’ve now established that Valyrian blades kill White Walkers.  For the record, Jon Snow, Brienne and Jamie Lannister own the only remaining Valyrian swords in existence.  Plus, dragonglass also kills White Walkers, and the only way they can make more dragonglass is through access to actual dragons.  So, surely the Queen of Dragons, Daenyrs, will factor into the fight.

However, Game of Thrones has mostly been in the Hobbit portion of the Tolkien saga where Sauron is just some Necromancer causing a ruckus up north somewhere, something which almost none of the main characters care or even know about.  Like Sauron during that portion of his story, the White Walkers have stuck to the periphery, their mostly off-screen presence directly impacting the unfolding war between the freefolk and the Night’s Watch across the past three seasons.  Those hostilities have even caught the attention of Stannis Baratheon, the only “king” south of the Wall to recognize the threat.  Yet, from what I understand, the show has used the White Walkers more than the novels have to this point (I have not read any of the books; feel free to correct me), and the Battle at Hardhome was a complete creation of the show, making it the first time in the history of Game of Thrones we have seen the White Walkers in complete battle.

Either way, thank you, Game of Thrones, because that battle, particularly the remarkably pants-crapping ending, was the more stunning sequence on any TV show I’ve watched this year.


    1. I have not. I have read a lot about the books, but I am certainly no expert. At this point, I know the show is deviating from the books and may even go past them if George RR Martin does not start writing faster.

      1. Well, I can’t watch the series because of its mature rating. But, I couldn’t my temptation hearing so much praise about the series. So, I read the first book ‘Game of Thrones’ and loved it. I am going to begin ‘Clash of Kings’ soon.

      2. That sounds like a decent compromise. If you can’t watch the show because of all the nudity and extreme gore you can at least read the books to know what’s going on with the story. The only problem is, like I said, Martin is dragging his feet so much that the show could genuinely leapfrog the books by next season. Either, whenevr you do get to watch the show you will be able to see how it all matches up to hiw you had pictured it. That was my experience with the hobbit and two of the 3 lord of the rings movies.

  1. Which LOTR movie didn’t exactly come out as you expected? Well, I love the opening credits of GOT and love the scale of the sitcom. But, even though I don’t watch the sitcom, I am sure it would lose much of its thrill and unpredictability if it didn’t follow the books. Although I do agree that Martin is taking a lot of time, we have to consider that vastness of the book and the details. Well, if we get that wrong, there is always one pain-in-the-ass fan who will point out. And even miniscule actions have great consequences in GOT so he has to take in consideration the effects of the actions in ‘The Winds of Winter’. Although still worried how Season 6 of GOT will come out because it takes Martin 5 years to write on of those books, and fans will keep on demanding it. Well, I can’t blame them. We need to get a new season at least within two years.

    1. Yeah, I don’t blame Martin. I’m aware of how long those books are. Since I don’t read them, It does not really impact me that much when he takes longer than expected to finish one of the books. I just know that a lot of fans are getting impatient, and seemingly whenever he’s even out in public there’s this kneejerk reaction of, “Shouldn’t you be at home finishing the book?”

      As for Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring film was my “in” to that universe. In the yearlong wait for The Two Towers, I ended up reading The Hobbit, Fellowship and Two Towers books, and then in the yearlong wait for Return of the King I cracked and read that book too. So, the only LOTR/Hobbit film which was completely new to me when I saw it was Fellowship. I sort of prefer that experience because there were lots of little things about Two Towers and ROTK which deviated from the books and distracted me simply because I had to think, “Wait a tic, that’s not how it was in….” For example, the Two Towers book has an ending with Sam, Frodo and Gollum which was carried over into the beginning of the ROTK film, and there’s a huge action set piece at the end of ROTK which was completely cut out of the film, although I don’t blame them.

    1. Yep. I even have a T-shirt that recreated the cover of Batman: The Animated Series but instead of “Batman: The Animated Series” it says “Sherlock” and instead of Batman and his cape flowing in the wind it’s a cartoon version of Cumberbatch with a big scarf.

      1. I know. And now both Cumberbatch and Freeman have been gobbled up by Marvel studios, the former as doctor strange and the latter as a mystery character in captain America civil war. Plus, Moffat still has doctor who. It has made sherlock into the TV show version of the before trilogy, i.e., something the involved parties do whenever they have time away from their other projects.

      2. Exactly, but they don’t seem to realize that this is the base of their popularity. This where they are at heir best. This is where everyone loves them. Very unfortunate to see them getting gobbed up by Marvel. It is sort of like a virus which just gets all the brilliant actors and puts them into a shitty big budget movie with a idiotic suit. Birdman was true!

      3. To be fair, the alternative is that they simply stop making the show, and I would understand that. Sherlock is, after all, just a BBC TV show. The trajectory is normally for actors in such shows which become crossover hits to eventually leave and try to make it in America. David Tennant tried, and it didn’t work out, British TV gladly welcoming him back. Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darville have all tried, with Smith not having much to show for it so far beyond a Ryan Gosling movie and small role in the new Terminator. Gillan instantly landed an Adult Swim show, then Oculus and Guardians of the Galaxy, then her own ABC sitcom, which didn’t make it past its first season. Darville spent a lot of time on Broadway, and now he’s in The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow. Game of Thrones is stock full of people who’ve acted on British TV. However, those Doctor Who people all still connect with fans through convention appearances. Cumberbatch and Freeman’s post-Sherlock success easily squashes the comparatively miniscule crossover success for modern Doctor Who actors. At this point in their careers, they could so easily continue moving onward and upward, but they have repeatedly stated that they love making Sherlock so much that they would love to keep making it for years to come whenever they have the time. So, at the very least, I appreciate them not moving on completely.

  2. I haven’t read the books either, but I heard that the entire scene at Hardhome is completely unique to the show so far. This has to be considered one of the major deviations from the books they were talking about. Deviation or not, that was possibly one of the best sequences on the show ever. it was so engaging and it wasn’t just shock factor like the Red Wedding, but it was exhilarating. I want to go rewatch it just to experience it again.

    1. Wanting to re-watch – You’re not the only one. I watched it again immediately after seeing it the first time, and just now I did a YouTube search and saw that there are multiple highly illegal uploads of the scene on there.

      Deviation from the book – According to the co-showrunners, Hardhome is a place in the books where something bad happens, but we don’t know much about it and none of the characters we know were there. So, they sort of did what The Hobbit trilogy did by making “The Necromancer” of the book a far more explicit version of a resurgent Sauron. They picked up on what had been merely implied, moved things around a little so that characters we actually know are involved, and showed us something amazing which the books barely even told.

      You’re right – the sequence is among the best in the show’s history, shocking, sure, but not in the same way of the Red Wedding or Purple Wedding or whatever. It was a truly game-changing event for the show.

  3. Fight Club also deviates from the book ending, in which Narrator hallucinates about having a philosophical discussion with God and then the hospital employees who are Project Members come an tell him that they are expecting him back.

    1. Hey, man, you forgot to mention spoiler alert!

      No, just kidding. I’ve seen both Fight Club and read the book. I remembered the endings were different, but had forgotten how specifically they were different until your reminder.

  4. I love the comparison between Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings! I saw all of the movies first when I was very young and read the books later on. The films are my favorites to this day.

    1. Thanks. I’ve never taken a deep dive into Game of Thrones fan sites or discussions forums or whatever. I imagine I am absolutely not the first person to make the Sauron connection with the White Walkers in general, but I was seeing everyone geek out about “Hardhome” yet no one was pointing out how this is a lot like the way the Hobbit trilogy deviated from the books and gave us Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond fighting Sauron for a brief spell. That was something barely referenced in the actual Hobbit book and very vaguely mentioned in the Lord of the Rings appendix. So, Peter Jackson and co. took the liberty of filling in the blanks which is what the GoT showrunners did with Hardhome, and now like Sauron the White Walkers are clearly the thing that was only ever defeated due to an improbable coalition and will again only be defeated if Westeros can eventually put aside all of its civil wars and recognize a common enemy.

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